After the expansive and commercial rock sound of 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, Polly Harvey threw something of a curveball with her next record Uh Huh Her when it eventually emerged four years on. It was rough and skeletal, with half the 14 tracks clocking in at under three minutes. White Chalk has taken a further three years to hit the racks, and is substantially different to anything she’s done before. It’s not really a rock album at all, with piano the dominant instrument.
“The Devil” kicks off the album, and the change is really startling. The piano playing is fairly rudimentary and percussive, and Harvey sings in a much higher register than usual. Not the banshee howl of “Rid Of Me”, either, but a fragile soprano. There is no lyric sheet, but the impression is that many of these songs are written from a small child’s perspective. “Grow Grow Grow”, “To Talk To You” and “When Under Ether” all have this child-like quality.
The title track sees the piano take second billing to acoustic guitar and banjo. It’s atmospheric – an absolutely magnificent song, inspired by the chalk landscapes of Dorset, with a beautiful ghostly melody. It’s followed by “Broken Harp”, a two minute vignette – as sparse as “White Chalk” is lush. “The Piano” is the closest any track gets to ‘rocking out’, and the only time that Harvey’s oft-noted vocal similarities to Patti Smith emerge. “Before Departure” is a deeply moving, elegiac ballad of deathbed reminiscence. It precedes “The Mountain”, an airy, curiously uplifting piece. On first listen, I was reminded of the theme song to The Snowman for some strange reason. It doesn’t sound anything like it, but it is infused with the same spectral wonder. It ends in a ghostly falsetto, almost like a post-death postscript to the album.
The album may, on the whole, be quiet and low key, but it’s definitely not a blanding out. It is as intense as anything Harvey has done in the past. Indeed, parts of it are as emotionally raw as anything you’re likely to hear, dealing as it does with the whole gamut of human existence from childhood to death. The initial impact is quite shocking for someone used to her previous oeuvre. It’s not just the lack of guitars, or anything resembling rock and roll, but the child-like quality to the vocals and piano. It takes no more than two listens, though, before it gets under the skin. It always seems premature to make comparative judgements when you’ve lived with an album for such a short time, but I think it’s a record I will be playing for many years to come, and probably more frequently than anything PJ Harvey’s done in the past. “White Chalk” and “Before Departure”, in particular, are two of the best songs I’ve heard this year.